Review of First Fleet by Stephen Case

Reviewed by Donald S. Crankshaw

First Fleet is best described as Lovecraftian horror science fiction. In the distant future, all System military personnel are protected by the Contract, under which the military agrees to bring any soldiers who are killed back to life. The System military does this by uploading their brains to the Brick, a quantum-entangled storage unit shared by every ship in the fleet. When a soldier dies, his armored suit will eject a res-pod, which carries the remains back to a medical frigate, so that his body can be regrown and his mind downloaded from the Brick.

The First Fleet has been sent to defeat the Colonizers, who left System space centuries ago to escape humanity's attempted genocide of their Synthetic allies, artificial intelligences embedded in bodies indistinguishable from those of humans. System was content to let the Colonizers and their Synthetics stay on their Reservation Worlds, but the Colonizers have expanded to a group of lifeless, sunless planets to conduct mining operations. The First Fleet intends to drive them out, but discovers that the dead worlds have the ruins of an ancient, non-human civilization. The ruins are mind-bending and unfathomable, and the ground assault quickly falls apart as the confused System soldiers fight not just Colonizers but each other. But as the res-pods make their way back to the waiting medical frigates, the remains they carry are not purely human.

First Fleet was originally published in four parts, as a short story and three novellas. The first part works on its own as a horror story—it was originally published as a stand-alone short story, which inspired a series of novellas—but the others build on it, and each extends the story, introducing new threads and new characters while continuing to expand upon the previous parts.

Horror thrives on the mysterious and inexplicable, while science fiction is usually all about the explanations. There’s an art to exploring the boundary between the two, where the science is strange and the technology beyond human ken. Alien creatures and civilizations whose mere discovery drives humans to madness is a very Lovecraftian idea, and Stephen Case uses it well. Partly this is because of his excellent world building. He sets up a future human culture that, while different, does reflect the trajectory of the human race, and we witness this encounter with the truly strange through the eyes of relatable characters: a scientist who's lost her sister, a physician trying to keep his sanity in a bloody war, a deserter who just wants to be left in peace.

The prologue takes place on board one of the First Fleet's medical frigates, where a res-pod containing alien DNA bears fruit, and the inhabitants quickly succumb to the creature's madness-causing influence. After the entire fleet succumbs to the alien intelligence, the story shifts to the Second Fleet, where Admiral Tholan has assembled a team, led by scientist Davis Germaine, to try to learn what has happened. Davis and Tholan are desperate, and willing to sacrifice the minds in the Brick in order to discover what they knew.

Beka is part of Tholan's team. Her sister vanished along with the First Fleet, and she is determined to do what she can to discover what happened to her. Davis's team is trying to download minds without a matching body, and since a mind can only be reconstituted in a body with a physical brain that matches the pattern contained in the Brick, doing so results in the blank bodies dying screaming. But the cold determination of the Davis drives the team to commit worse horrors, until they learn of one body from the First Fleet which has arrived in System space intact.

Donovan was killed at the end of the prologue and set adrift in a res-pod, where he is discovered by Cam and her husband Paul, colonists on a world being terraformed. Cam served in the System military years ago, where she discovered that after her own resurrection, she could hear the voices in the Brick. Afraid of what that meant, she fled from the service. Now she has two daughters of her own, and the twin girls can do even more, dreaming of the minds still locked in the Brick, and even of the alien mind attempting to gain access.

While nothing in the book attempts to address the dilemmas of the characters in spiritual terms, this is a book, and setting, filled with spiritual questions. Are the minds in the Brick alive? Is someone brought back by a res-pod and the Brick the same person? What of the soul? Are the synthetics truly alive? And what are these aliens that can manipulate space?

Ultimately, Stephen Case’s view is more hopeful than Lovecraft's. Even after the revelation of dark secrets and great crimes by the human fleet, he still gives them a chance to find, if not redemption, then at least survival. Each character has a role to play, and each of them has a moment of heroism. Even more villainous characters like Davis and Admiral Tholan have their part to play in trying to prevent the things that have claimed the First Fleet from finding their way to the human home systems of System and the Reservation Worlds. As is so often the case, the survival of the human race depends on these imperfect representatives.

First Fleet is available on Amazon for $8.49 for the complete saga, and for various prices for the four individual stories (starting at free for the first one).

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